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Guest post: Should we really be making jokes about North Korean prison camps?

Guest post: Should we really be making jokes about North Korean prison camps?

The North Korean gulag, which popped up this week on Google Maps, has incited a smarty-pants insurgency. As Passport reported yesterday, the glib "user reviews" of locations in the isolated totalitarian state are rolling in. Consider what virtual tourists have written about the notorious Camp 14, whose image is now just a click away.

"Man, I loved this place! The public executions were amazing!" observed Patrick.

"Hands down best place I have ever visited! Definitely would recommend this place for anybody who wants to have the full North Korean experience," opined Bradley.

Satellite imagery, citizen cartography, and Google mapping technology have enabled everyone with an attitude and an Internet connection to rubberneck a human-rights catastrophe — and leave behind an ironic apercu. I happen to have written a totally not ironic book about a boy who was born and bred in Camp 14. Guards chose his parents, ordered them to have sex and then raised Shin Dong-hyuk to be their disposable slave.

He was starved, tortured, and forced to witness the execution of his mother and his brother. He escaped in 2005, but he still struggles to understand what it means to be a human being. Western governments and human rights groups estimate there as many as 200,000 prisoners in five or six sprawling political labor camps in North Korea.

Shin finds nothing amusing about the gulag images now available on Google Maps (or in the far more detailed satellite photographs that Shin has annotated on Google Earth).

But he can put up with black humor. At least the easy and instantaneous availability of visual evidence on Google is helping to build momentum for an investigation into crimes committed in the camps over the past half a century. The images dovetail with the testimony of 60 former camp prisoners. Their stories — and satellite photographs they have annotated — have been published in a 200-page report called Hidden Gulag.

Policymakers seem to be paying more attention. Secretary of State John Kerry, in his confirmation hearing last week, said global leadership means "speaking out for the prisoners of gulags in North Korea."

More urgently, the chief human rights official at the United Nations, Navi Pillay, said in mid-January that the time has come for a full-fledged international inquiry.

"The highly developed system of international human rights protection that has had at least some positive impact in almost every country in the world seems to have bypassed [North Korea]," Pillay said. "I believe an in-depth inquiry into one of the worst — but least understood and reported — human rights situations is not only fully justified, but long overdue."

North Korea has for years flatly refused to cooperate with U.N. questions about the camps. It has refused to allow the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights to visit the country. In a recent statement, the official Korean Central News Agency described reports of concentration camps in the North as "fictions."

Pillay’s demand for an investigation will soon go before the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council, which meets in Geneva in February and March. There is a good chance that it will actually go somewhere. China, Russia, and Cuba — which have defended North Korea in the past — will not be on the council this year. And Japan last week made clear that it would push for the inquiry.

An international investigation, of course, is unlikely to change the way North Korea does business. The country’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un, seems in no mood to accept criticism. When the U.N. Security Council (with the support of China and Russia) approved new sanctions last week against Pyongyang for its launch of a long-range missile, Kim’s government threatened to explode a third nuclear device.

But that should not matter. Anything that focuses public attention on the camps is worthwhile. Pillay noted that nuclear weapons and long-range missiles have for too long "overshadowed the deplorable human rights situation in [North Korea], which in one way or another affects almost the entire population and has no parallel anywhere else in the world."

Google Maps of the gulag have the potential to focus world attention on North Korea as never before — even if some of that attention is snarky. Smart-aleck awareness is better than ignorance.

Blaine Harden, a former Washington Post reporter, is the author of Escape from Camp 14.